The thuggery of ruling Patriotic Front (PF) cadres never seems to cease and appears to grow more frequent as time passes. Media reports on their latest antics can be read or heard almost every week and produce much tutting and shaking of heads around dinner tables in Kabulonga, Ibex, Woodlands, Rhodes Park, Kalundu, Sunningdale, Longacres, Salama Park, Olympia, New Kasama, Roma and other low-density suburbs that are home to ‘middle class’ Zambians. The latest appalling conduct of PF cadres occurred on Tuesday, 30 April 2019, when they violently disrupted a live programme on Power FM Radio Station in Kabwe featuring opposition National Democratic Congress leader Chishimba Kambwili. The cadres broke the door to the studio, forcefully halted the programme, threatened to kill Kambwili and destroyed property belonging to the station. Kambwili has since condemned the thuggish behaviour of PF cadres and called on President Edgar Lungu to curtail their undesirable conduct before it is too late.

Kambwili is neither the first person to be at the receiving end of the violence of PF cadres nor the only one to raise concern about their despicable behaviour. He is simply the latest. Only recently, Kabwe council workers protesting against delayed payment of salaries were severely beaten by PF cadres, with some left for dead. In the wake of those reprehensible attacks on innocent workers, many Zambians called on Lungu to condemn the conduct of his party supporters. Their call, however, like those before it, did not find any receptive ears from the President. Similar calls in future will not find any support from Lungu. To state this point with certainty is not to condone the conduct of PF cadres; it is simply to emphasise the idea that those who condemn the behaviour of PF cadres, correct though they are in doing so, are missing three wider points that enable and sustain the unpleasant conduct of PF cadres and that explain Lungu’s reluctance to rein in on the thuggish actions of his supporters.

The first is the institutional deterioration, loss of autonomy and politicisation of the police. The core operational duties of a professional police service is to maintain law and order, protect members of the public and their property, prevent the commission of offences and to bring the offenders to justice. To effectively execute these responsibilities, the police must possess the authority, widely recognised by the public, as the lawful and rightful body to enforce them and to do so in a professional and impartial manner that builds public confidence in the institution and helps improve the quality of life for all citizens. It is precisely this authority that has deserted the police in today’s Zambia. The public, rather than viewing it as an apolitical and professional body that is out to protect individual liberties of all Zambians regardless of their political affiliation, now regards the police as nothing more than hired agents of the ruling party. This is because the executive branch of government has corrupted the police, as it has done to other state institutions, to primarily function as a sword for the elites in power and their supporters.

A fundamental part of corruption is corrupting the system, including the police, the judiciary, and other supposedly independent state institutions in order to legitimise wrong and even illegal actions. This is precisely what the PF has done in order to entrench their grip on power and rule by force or the threat of such force: destroying the instruments of governance in such a way that anybody who stands in the way of their project risks being penalised or disciplined. We saw this recently in Sesheke when police officers who beat up violent PF cadres were instantly dismissed when the previous police brutality of opposition supporters has not attracted a similar response. In so doing, the police command and the government, in effect, communicated the message that any police officer who does not support the interests of the ruling party will be dismissed. It is this partisan approach to policing that emboldens the thuggish behaviour of PF cadres who now know that they can get away with any transgression committed in the name of the party since the police cannot stop them. Here, we see that the whole system of following the law itself and observing the rule of law and the Constitution is, in today’s Zambia, a punishable offence.

It does not help that the police is today led by a top command that epitomises its decay, lack of autonomy, and partisanship. There is a curious way in which the true character of the President of Zambia, especially in relation to their attitude towards power, the rule of law and their commitment to entrenching civil liberties and safeguarding the independence and integrity of state institutions, is partly revealed or expressed by his or her choice of appointment to the positions of Inspector General of Police and the Deputy. Superlatives cannot adequately capture the unprofessionalism that has marked the tenure of Kakoma Kanganja as Inspector General of Police. Kanganja embodies all that is wrong with the police service today: inept, unprofessional and out to do the bidding of the ruling elites. His occupancy of the office of Inspector General of Police has left its reputation in tatters.

It is perhaps incriminating proof of President Lungu’s attraction to the violent, inept or most debased – those whose conduct betrays a lack of respect for themselves, for any moral and ethical values, the law and their appointing authority – that a person like Bonny Kapeso was promoted to the position of Deputy Inspector General of Police. If Kapeso has discharged his duties in a manner warranting promotion, the evidence, at least in the public domain, is extremely scant. The evidence that abounds is his documented penchant for violence, which he has employed to effectively turn the Police Service back into the Police Force of the colonial and one-party eras. Many Zambians generally consider Kapeso as Lungu’s chief violence enforcer, the person who does the dirty work the boss does not want to be seen to be doing or sanctioning; the Kaizer Zulu of the police – someone working under the cover of darkness, for a boss whose curated image would suffer for his direct association with their dishonorable and nefarious acts.

The result of a police service led by Kanganja and Kapeso is what we have today: an institution so bereft of public respect that it is largely a matter of discretion to refer to it as a service. A two-tier system of policing has emerged in Zambia today: one for PF leaders and cadres who are at liberty to do as they please, including beating, wounding and possibly killing anyone, and another for the rest of us who can be arrested even for what the PF thinks we are thinking, who are denied their rights to assemble and whose individual liberties are constantly tramped upon at will. In this climate, Kanganja and Kapeso cannot be expected to be professional when they are simply an extension of the cadrisation of the police. It is a shame to have individuals with no sense of doing the right thing according to our laws in the service of the Zambian people at the helm of such an important organ of our security services. One glimmer of hope is that ordinary police officers, majority of whom are young, professional, and principled, have a dim view of their superiors and not all of them display the same levels of incompetence and lack of respect for meritocracy.

The second point is that PF cadres represent the dominant social group in Zambia today – the ‘lumpen’ poor and marginalised population, concentrated mainly in the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt, many of whom we constantly denounce as thugs who operate with impunity, depend on the use of violence as a survival tool, seize and divide up land, harass political opponents, and even attack police officers who dare to try and enforce the law (against them). Criticising and moralising about the behaviour of this group, which includes the jobless and impoverished crowds who gather in markets and bus stations, is neither enough nor helpful. What is needed is to understand where this group comes from, the historical conditions that created it or the causes of its behaviour and what sustains it, and why it is readily available for hire to any new leader or party that comes to power. To answer these questions properly, we must look back to the disastrous record of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government in the 1990s. For though Lungu and the PF can be blamed for mobilising this group, they did not create it. It is the direct result of the failures of the structural adjustment policies of the MMD government in the 1990s when the effective collapse of various sectors of the economy left many of today’s much-derided cadres, who were born during this period, without a future.

The failure of subsequent administrations in the early 2000s to provide decent formal education and economic opportunities unleashed or added new numbers to this broad ‘lumpen’ class and created a situation where this segment of the population knows neither of these things, has no prospects beyond a daily struggle to survive and is consequently not bound by middle class norms and values. These are the fellow citizens whom we contemptuously call ‘cadres’ today. They now constitute a majority in Zambia and their political weight is clearly evident at election time. Michael Sata and the PF relied on this group, both in Lusaka and on the Copperbelt, to win power. Since the PF’s election in 2011, and especially after Lungu’s election in 2015, this group has felt like it is in power and has the authority to act out its values and beliefs. Unless the few Zambians who are sufficiently educated and are involved in genuine systemic and structural employment find a way of improving the lot of this group, which has been reduced to a heap of undiluted poverty, mass unemployment and extreme inequalities, and that is eking out a miserable living from the street or the land, the constant friction between the values of these two classes will persist.

In this regard, the complaints from the middle class Zambians about the conduct of PF cadres are missing the point, at least insofar as finding a sustainable solution to the violent behaviour of political cadres is concerned. This dominant group, to which the violent PF cadres belong, is here to stay. Even if President Lungu goes, it will still exist. If Zambia’s economic woes continue, its members will only increase and will be available for hire by future populist and unprincipled politicians. One tragedy of their support for the PF is that most will get little in return. Instead of decrying and denouncing the conduct of this group, we need effective, proactive and sustainable policies to address the socio-economic conditions that created and sustain it, and to offer it something tangible and better. Appeals to middle class concepts like ‘respect for the rule of law’, ‘order’, ‘democracy’, and ‘respect for the constitution’, or any semblance of morality, especially in the public domain and in politics, are unlikely to impinge much on the collective consciousness of this underprivileged class. This group lives survivalist lives. What matters to its members is to ‘put food on the table’ by any means necessary. In its world, nothing is fixed, certain, moral, stable or durable – classic attributes of the life that a lumpen leads.

The third and final point is that PF cadres, in much of their behaviour, are simply acting out on a small scale the politics and behaviour of the ruling elites. Seizing plots of land, for instance, is much like the wholesale looting of public resources taking place at higher levels and government ministers operating outside the law. Beating up political rivals, harassing critics of the government or curtailing the rights of those with contrary views amounts to giving expression to President Lungu’s regular vow to fall like a tonne of bricks on his opponents. This does not excuse the behaviour of PF cadres but helps explain where it comes from. What is frightening is that many individuals from the dominant lumpen class mentioned above have begun moving into national leadership positions or asserting themselves as candidates for elective public office. The most notable representatives of this group today include Special Assistant to the President for Political Affairs Kaizer Zulu, Lusaka Province Minister Bowman Lusambo, Minister of Lands Jean Kapata, Minister of Home Affairs Stephen Kampyongo and several lawmakers, both from the opposition and ruling party. Following their ascent to power, these new leaders will be hard to dislodge, as they have the enthusiastic support of the lawless cadres who see some of their own in power. For the same reason, Lungu will not denounce this group as he draws his support from it and is apprehensive of losing its backing, which would see the PF swiftly removed from power, suffering the same fate as the MMD. Lungu’s reluctance to condemn the thuggery of PF cadres should be understood in this context: he exists and thrives off similar acts of impunity. The weakening of state institutions, exacerbated by Lungu’s tolerance for the violent behaviour of PF cadres, shows his contempt for these institutions in the first place.

It is worth noting that hoisted onto the mass of human poverty mentioned in the second point is a superficial colonial liberal political structure – a legislature, executive and judiciary. These structures, apart from serving as the infrastructure that protects largely foreign private property, have very little real meaning to the everyday lives of the majority of ordinary Zambians. They are, however, a source of power and an exit route out of poverty for the tiny middle class that finds its way into these structures, by whatever illiberal means possible. Zambia is an impoverished country, materially and culturally, not withstanding its natural wealth. We Zambians have absolutely no control whatsoever over our country’s economic life. Foreign capital reigns supreme. Some members of the tiny middle class that appears to be well off survive mainly by getting into dubious relationships with foreign capital.

In such social and economic circumstances, professions are a means to find a job, for survival, not to advance the so-called ‘noble ideals’ of the profession. Law, for instance, has assumed the mantle of leader, in this regard in Zambia. It has become the scum of all professions, in my opinion. To become a lawyer has become the dream of any young man or woman who seeks to escape poverty, not the one who wants to advance the ideals of truth and justice. The truth is foreign territory to the impoverished lumpen. Thus many lawyers and judges will gladly serve out lies, corruption and injustice to advance their careers and the interests of their benefactors. Nothing is surprising or shocking here. What must shock us is when in any matter in which their interests are at stake, such lawyers and judges stick to the truth that hurts their interests. In this wider climate, where virtues and ideals are frowned upon, the middle class inevitably mimics the survival behaviours of the larger or dominant part of the population, described above.

This is a rough sketch of the historical context in which Lungu was born, exists and thrives. He embodies some of the worst attributes of lumpen behaviour fit to survive in this jungle of mass poverty. His refusal to admonish the PF cadres for their appalling behaviour stems from the point that he is their leader par excellence. A look at his personal life including as a lawyer, how he ascended to the leadership position of the PF, how he consolidated his power over the party (including how he has dealt with those that supported him in his quest for power such as Chishimba Kambwili and Harry Kalaba), how he has terrorised the country including the critical media, how he won the 2015 and 2016 elections, how he has contemptuously disregarded the Constitution on several occasions, how he treated opposition United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema over the treason debacle, and so on, all confirm how well he has mastered the behaviour and art of survival of the mass of the Zambian population which is, by and large, impoverished, lumpen and prone to chaos. Over the last four years, Lungu has repeatedly shown that no morality other than the behaviour conducive to his survival is permissible, in his political life. He can easily intimidate judges of any court to pass a favourable verdict when it matters most to him. Or he can ignore the courts. He threatened that he would not hesitate to deploy chaos to ensure that he stands again in 2021 and judges of the Constitutional Court arguably yielded.

The point is that asking Lungu to condemn PF cadres for exhibiting behaviour that he himself exemplifies is futile. What is needed is to uncover the sectional interests that sustain Lungu in power, and to patiently, persistently and constantly expose the full character and mode of governing of Lungu and the self-serving elite class at the heart of public life, including those who occupy key positions in several state institutions and are complicit in sustaining our state of backward poverty and extreme cultural impoverishment. Focusing on isolated incidents or Lungu alone will not help us much. The broad lumpen masses must be educated about the dead-end character of our socio-economic life and the kind of politics this breeds.